Scripture offers invaluable primary historical sources for Paul’s life: his letters and the Acts of the Apostles. In addition, we have several early traditions about him outside of Scripture.
Paul was probably born between the years A.D. 5 and 10, just a few years after Jesus. (All the dates associated with his life are approximate and debated by scholars.) His parents were strictly observant Jews living in the city of Tarsus, the prosperous capital of Cilicia, a province of the Roman Empire in what is now Turkey.
Paul was not just a resident but a citizen of Tarsus, which suggests that his family was wealthy. He also claimed Roman citizenship by birth, a status that carried considerable prestige.
His Jewish name was “Saul”; “Paul” was a well-known Roman family name. This arrangement was common for Jews in this period, especially outside Palestine, who often had two names, one Greek or Roman and the other Semitic.
The young Paul obviously received a fine education. He could write Greek well and probably knew Hebrew or Aramaic (Jesus’ native language) as well. His writing and preaching demonstrated admirable rhetorical skills.
In his adolescence Paul studied the Jewish Scriptures under the famous Jewish rabbi Gamaliel I the Elder of Jerusalem. In time, this avid student came to know the sacred texts well enough to quote extensively from them by memory, including the deuterocanonical books.
Paul also had at least a passing acquaintance with other religions of his day. On at least one occasion he quoted from pagan religious texts while preaching.
In addition, he knew the useful trade of tent-making, which helped support him during his missionary journeys.
The apostle once declared that he was “a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6). In one of his letters he recalled of his youth: “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal 1:14, RSV).
It was apparently this religious zealotry that led the young man to persecute Christians, whom he must have viewed as a new and dangerous cult, threatening the Pharisaic traditions he so passionately embraced.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that soon after Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Church met with hostility, as had Our Lord himself.
We first encounter Paul in this account as an associate of those who stoned to death St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. After Stephen’s death, Paul “was trying to destroy the church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment” (Acts 8:3).
The young man’s anger toward Christians was ferocious:
“Breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, [he] went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogue in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains” (Acts 9:1-2).
But God had other plans for Paul. On the road to Damascus, the Risen Christ himself showed up, in an appearance so powerful that it knocked Paul to the ground and blinded him.
Paul was confronted with the reality that the Man of Nazareth who had been crucified truly was raised from the dead, as His followers claimed. This Man, he came to realize, was in fact the divine Son of God in the flesh, the Christ (or Messiah) long promised to His people. In opposing the Church, Paul had been opposing the God he had wanted to serve.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the Lord told him. Then He gave the trembling man in-structions about how he was to begin the radically new life that lay ahead for him.
Paul had become a follower of Christ, called to a new mission to preach the Gospel of his new Lord to the world.
Arriving at Damascus, the new “apostle of Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 1:1) obeyed the Lord’s instructions, was healed miraculously of his blindness and was baptized. Then he received his first instructions about the Christian life from other believers.
As passionate as ever about what he believed, Paul began sharing his new faith right away in the local synagogues of Damascus, where Jewish people gathered to worship.
A Man on the Move
We can only imagine the uproar that resulted when the young Pharisee began “preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (Gal 1:23). Before long, the Jewish religious leaders opposed to the Christian movement were seeking to kill Paul.
The persecutor had become the persecuted. So he fled to Arabia (or Nabatea) for awhile. Eventually, he returned to Damascus, but he had to flee once more, barely escaping his enemies by being lowered secretly in a basket through the city wall.
This time Paul went back to Jerusalem to get acquainted with the apostles, to be taught by them and to seek their recognition of his own vocation. He stayed awhile with St. Peter and continued preaching. Then, once again facing dangerous opposition, he withdrew into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, his home province.
We don’t know for sure the details of this period, sometimes called the “unknown years” of Paul’s life. But we do know that, eventually, the apostle ended up in Antioch, the great metropolis of Syria where the numerous local followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” There he began a decade of remarkable and successful missionary journeys throughout that part of the world.
Three Missionary Journeys
Paul’s extensive travels are traditionally clustered by historians into what they call his “three missionary journeys.”
In the first, he went to the island of Cyprus, several cities in Asia Minor, back to Antioch, then to Jerusalem and Antioch again. Typically, in each place he preached first in the local Jewish synagogue, then to the Gentiles of the area.
In his second journey, Paul returned to the sites in Asia Minor where he had preached before to check up on the new Christian communities he had established. This strategy of planting new local churches, moving on to preach in other cities and then following up again (through visits or letters) became the pattern for his ministry.
Next, going north to preach in Galatia and Phrygia, Paul crossed over into Europe for the first time, preaching in Macedonia and the Greek cities of Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea, Athens and Corinth. Eventually, Paul preached in the great city of Ephesus, the most important Roman city in Asia Minor.
Though he made plans to preach in Spain, we don’t know for sure whether he ever made it that far west.
The names of Paul’s biblical epistles reflect some of the locales we’ve noted: 1 and 2 Corinthians, Gala-tians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians. These letters provided the young churches he had founded with instruction, correction, inspiration and encouragement. Paul also wrote the biblical letter to the Romans, though the church there was not one he himself had planted.
In addition, some of the biblical epistles of Paul were written to individuals, such as 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon. (Scholars have debated whether some of the letters attributed to him might, in fact, have been written by another author using his name. We assume here that the biblical books bearing his name are his work, in keeping with the Church’s ancient tradition.)
Paul wrote more books of the Bible than any other author. Not surprisingly, then, his writing came to have tremendous influence on the Church, not only in his day but in every succeeding generation that has heard, read and meditated on the Scriptures he penned.
After an extended stay in Ephesus, the apostle went to several more cities before heading back to Jerusalem at last. By that time, he had endured remarkable suffering for the sake of his mission. In addition to multiple imprisonments, he survived numerous other challenges and adversities.
“Five times,” he told the Christians at Corinth, “at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers, in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure” (2 Cor 11:24-27).
In Jerusalem Paul’s preaching once again stirred up trouble from the enemies of the Church. He was arrested, and over a period of two years in prison, he was brought before a Jewish court, a Jewish puppet king and two successive Roman governors. In the end he was shipped off to Rome for trial there.
The journey by sea to the imperial capital was a nightmare, with storms, a shipwreck and a winter spent stranded at Malta. Once in Rome, Paul remained there for two years under house arrest, though he had the liberty to preach and to teach those who came to visit him.
Missionary and Martyr
Scripture doesn’t tell us about St. Paul’s death. But an ancient and reliable tradition reports that he was martyred under the Roman emperor Nero, probably sometime after the summer of the year 64 — perhaps in the same persecution of Christians when St. Peter was crucified. Paul was beheaded and then buried on the Via Ostiensis at a place now marked by the basilica of St. Paul-outside-the-Walls (of Rome).
Down through the ages, the traditional image of St. Paul has shown him holding an open book of Scripture and a sword. These symbols remind us not only of his courageous labors in planting churches, but also his invaluable role in providing the Church with, as he once called it, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:17).
We do well to remember St. Paul with gratitude, and to take up that “sword” once more for the spiritual battle that still rages.
Paul Thigpen, Ph.D., is the editor of The Catholic Answer and a professor of theology at Southern Catholic College in Dawsonville, Ga.